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Disability visability: Claire Cunningham

INTERVIEW. Dance artist Claire Cunningham takes a hard look at accessibility in her piece The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight with Jess Curtis, coming to Berlin Nov 2-6 as part of Tanzfabrik's Open Spaces festival.

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Claire Cunningham has spent 11 years becoming one of today’s most visible disabled dance artists – her solo work makes amazing use of the crutches she uses to get around. Her latest piece, created with choreographer Jess Curtis, opens at Berlin’s Uferstudios as part of Tanzfabrik’s Open Spaces festival.

UC Berkeley philosophy professor Alva Noë is listed as a “philosophical consultant” on this piece. What does that mean?

A lot of his thinking is around this idea of enactive perception, that our bodies dictate how we perceive the world. One of the underlying principles of our piece is to make it as accessible as possible to as broad an audience as possible, including to people with sensory impairments. And so from that perspective, we were interested in the senses and the philosophy of perception. Things like audio description were quite key – how do you describe abstract performance? It was so great to have a philosopher in the rehearsal room to ask, “What is it to describe what you’re seeing?” “What is it to question what you’re seeing?”

It sounds more thoughtful than just providing closed captioning…

By thinking of the aesthetics of access in the process rather than something you tack onto the end to tick a box, it adds an incredible richness to the work. It can really take you places you wouldn’t  find otherwise.

So what was your approach like?

We spent a week in London working with visually impaired and deaf artists to figure out how to carry people through a work without it being just, “This is what you would see if you were sighted” – without it having that sort of bias. Because it’s actually not very interesting just to describe abstract movement: “She lifts her arm.” So Jess and I describe what we’re doing from a sensory perspective, like, “I take the breath into my lungs to hold my bones in place, to stop from collapsing as Jess rolls over me.” We’re trying to provide things which give an insight to everybody.

What if no one takes advantage of these accessibility options?

Of course you hope to have audience members who use these services, but for me, even if you just get one person who uses the sign-language interpretation, it’s still an incredibly important thing to do. Because if people see it, then they’ll notice the next time it’s not there. Deaf, disabled, sensory-impaired artists and audience members – they’re still missing. Non-disabled people do not notice the absence of disabled people. Institutions aren’t going to become accessible unless someone knocks on the door: “Well, no deaf person’s ever come here before.” Well, of course they’ve never come here, because you haven’t made them welcome! It’s a cycle, and visibility is a huge part of that. It’s one of the main reasons I self-identify as a disabled artist. It’s not something I am interested in discounting or hiding.

The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, Nov 2-6, 20:30, Uferstudios, Wedding